One recent afternoon, as I combed the racks at American Apparel, I realized that I owned a substantial portion of the collection—in 1981, at the age of 11. I was a committed jock: Even when I wasn't headed to gymnastics or tennis lessons, I favored athletic-inspired fashions. I also grew up in New Jersey. A typical childhood outfit for me is easily approximated with items from the rapidly expanding chain store. For example: the Interlock Running Short in kelly green and white ($22); Unisex Calf-High Tube Socks, also in kelly green and white ($8); the Sheer Jersey Shoulder Tie Tube Top in pastel rainbow and white ($14, reduced from $28); the California Fleece Track Jacket in navy and white (Men's Department, $44); and the Flex Terry Headband ($6)—Bjorn Borg was my hero and locker poster boy.
Most but not all items at American Apparel are made of 100 percent cotton, whereas the fabrics back then were less wholesome. (Surely my "jogging shorts" were 50 percent polyester/50 percent cotton, while my "warm-up jacket"—as we used to say in the days before hoodie and tracksuit entered the lexicon—was definitely nylon.) But the basic cuts and shapes were identical.
When I look at photographs of myself from that period, I tend to find my outfits laughable, even piteous. The explosive success of American Apparel, however, suggests that twentysomethings and other members of the youth culture (who smartly managed to sit out the actual early '80s) seem to find my prepubescent sensibility cool. The company's 2006 sales were estimated at $300 million. And in December, American Apparel was taken over by Endeavor Acquisition Corporation, which plans to open 800 new stores around the world, in addition to the 145 that are already in existence. (Controversial A.A. founder Dov Charney—famous above all, let it be said, for masturbating during an interview with a Jane magazine reporter in 2004—walked away with $200 million in shares.)
But can a retailer renowned for its outré image—as well as its sweatshop-free, American-made labor practices—go mainstream without losing its aesthetic and political edge? In recent years the Gap, once famous for workaday yet stylish basics in an ice cream parlor's worth of colors, has foundered. Meanwhile, the latest wave of chain stores (H&M, Zara) specialize in high-fashion knockoffs. Arguably, there's an opening for a retailer who can capture the Gap's early magic—and become America's T-shirter of choice. Whether American Apparel can handle the job remains open to debate.
As I examined the store's offerings, it struck me that there are actually three American Apparels. There is the ironic, nostalgic, Three's Company-inspired retailer of "hideous" clothes made hip again. (See first paragraph. See also: the truly gnarly Mesh Boy Brief for girls, in 100 percent polyester ($10).)
There is also the risqué promoter of "advanced," body-conscious fashions for people who are younger than you and who get laid more often—as immortalized in the company's print advertisements, which are derivative of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark and feature slightly spaced-out, "real"-looking models revealing their multi-ethnic origins, as well as (frequently) their breasts, crotches, and asses. This is the American Apparel of the terrifyingly form-fitting Cotton Spandex Jersey Criss-Cross Short Sleeve Unitard ($38); the ridiculously short Cotton Spandex Jersey Double U-Neck Dress ($30); the disco-scary Lamé Halter Bodysuit ($30) in gold, copper, and silver—as well as the matching Lamé Leggings ($36). Maybe I've missed something and girls today all love the way their butts look in spandex. Even so, I have trouble imagining many unitards selling this year. Never mind copper lamé bodysuits.